Genius is the capacity for receiving and improving by discipline.
So said George Eliot, some 150 years ago. Eliot is the author of Middlemarch – one of the finest novels in the English language.
The thing is, life moves much more quickly today than it did back then. We suffer from information overload, sidetracked and distracted, with not nearly enough hours in the day.
We can find ourselves struggling with very real competing demands on our time, while still needing to fit in writing alongside whatever else we might have to do. For many, that can be a full-time job and/or caring responsibilities, running a business and other key commitments.
Fundamentally, getting it done boils down to three things: structure, discipline and focus.
Organising what precious time we do have is so important – whether it’s an overall schedule for a writing project, or simply committing to be at our desk (or wherever we feel most comfortable to create) at a particular time, for a fixed period, to get those words down.
Naturally, this needs to be flexible and work for our individual circumstances, because routine should never mean imprisonment – and, of course, life has a habit of happening while we make other plans!
But chaos isn’t a great facilitator – regularity is.
Structure gives us the freedom from which to let our creativity flow and imagination run riot. The basics are taken care of so, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our minds are released to reach a higher place.
Structure also gives us the space for self-care, thinking time, relaxation and balance – all of which are as just as important to our creative process as activity itself.
As Eliot’s quote implies, we master our work by rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it. Refining our technique, self-editing, being rigorous: applying ourselves day-in, day-out.
Fundamentally, it’s about showing up in our own process and committing to whatever’s necessary to create.
It’s no coincidence that we call this our ‘practice’: our method and approach. Being dedicated to our craft, willing to learn, seek guidance and critique, try new things and face down those inevitable moments of self-doubt and insecurity.
Truly disciplined creatives show up regardless of how they’re feeling. At the end of an hour or so they might still be staring at a blank screen, or paper as white as snow, but they accept this is part of the process.
They might take a break, ease off and let their minds rest – but they come back and try again.
The difference between the successful and unsuccessful creative is discipline. As the writer Stephen King says, waiting for the muse is a waste of time:
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
While we’re twiddling our thumbs, hoping for lightning to strike, we could actually be writing. That old adage about backsides on seats is only too true here.
Staying power is what gets you to that last full stop of your manuscript. The sense of achievement is palpable – and wonderful.
This is about our sense of purpose: how and where we choose to direct our energy. So much potential for fantastic work can be frittered away through lack of focus and attention.
- Are we scattergun in our approach, or laserlike?
- Do we have a clear idea of what we’re going to achieve, what we’ve set for ourselves?
- Have we sketched out a plan of how we’re going to make a start and see it through?
Our ability to be productive relies on focus as much as discipline and structure. We might be showing up each day but if our work lacks focus, we might just as well be whistling in the wind.
As a writer, you know you already have the energy and ideas to make really exciting, original work. You have the motivation to reach and inspire others. Structure, discipline and focus are the tools to help you get where you need to go.
If you’re finding it difficult to shape your writing life, try putting these in place one at a time.
- Focus – think about what you want to achieve and how.
- Structure – give yourself the practical, day-to-day framework to implement it.
- Discipline – commit to showing up to do that work.
The chances are you’ll find your productivity goes through the roof.
You’ll feel more organised and inspired.
The celebrated violinist and conductor, the late, great Yehudi Menuhin, said:
Do we not find freedom along the guiding lines of discipline?
As a great artist, he should know.